MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The West Virginia coaching staff often talks about non-negotiable within the program in reference to the aspects necessary for mountaineers to give themselves the best chance of winning.
Effort is one of the main topics on this list.
It’s also something that has helped junior cornerback Jackie Matthews become a household name in the Mountaineers’ defense after three games of the 2021 season.
“What I like about Jackie is that he plays at speed. He’s one of the best forwards we have, ”said WVU head coach Neal Brown. “What I mean by that is that in the downhill he uses good technique. He’s not a guy who dives up to his ankles. He runs by contact.
“He’s got a little presence in him that some of the guys on this side of the ball don’t have until a little bounce for him. I really like the way he plays.
Matthews’ effort at Virginia Tech’s last practice last Saturday won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
With the Hokies 4 yards from their first lead, Matthews covered wide Tre Turner almost all the way after VT quarterback Braxton Burmeister reversed direction to avoid a rushed pass. Burmeister threw at Turner, who nearly made a potential catch to win the game, only for Matthews to force him out of bounds into the air and hit the ball in the process.
“You’re not going to find a better effort game,” said WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “The kid gets beat up and catches up with a key situation and forces the guy out of bounds. It’s the games that win you matches, not what I draw on a board or what someone draws on the board.
Seconds later, Burmeister chased Turner again on a fourth and goal tiebreak and Matthews broke the pass to preserve a 27-21 victory.
“The best thing he does is find the ball,” Lesley said. “It’s really a natural accord most of the time too. There are some really good athletes and some really good ball players and if you can find a combination of the two you really have something. Jackie is a combination of a bit of both.
Matthews plays more in his second season at WVU. This was expected after spending the 2018 and 2019 seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and was largely in transition mode throughout his freshman year at Morgantown.
But the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Matthews also saw his role expand in part because of his versatility.
“Junior college players in their sophomore year have generally improved a lot,” said Brown. “It was definitely the case with Jackie. He worked with [safeties Alonzo Addae and Scottie Young] go back to January. These three put in extra time and really deserved the opportunity to have successful seasons.
“We have him play in several positions. He plays the spear for us. When we go to our dime pack, he’s basically playing the linebacker from the will. Then he plays in the corner and he played all of those positions for three games. His mental approach has also improved a lot.
Playing in different positions is nothing new for Matthews, a former Pinson Valley High School quarterback in Alabama. This is where Matthews played for Patrick Nix, the father of Auburn quarterback Bo Nix.
Ahead of Matthews’ senior season, Bo Nix became a quarterback at PVHS, and Matthews then saw most of his action as wide receiver and defensive back.
Pinson Valley won the 6A State Championship in 2017. Matthews was also on a National Junior College Athletic Association football championship team at MGCC the season before he arrived in West Virginia.
“He won a state championship in high school and played in multiple positions,” Brown said. “He goes to Gulf Coast and plays all the high school positions and they win a national championship in his sophomore year. I think there is something about it. He was a selfless college player, which you don’t see a lot of. He played free safety, he played corner, he played nickel and all of that in his second season there.
Throughout preseason, Matthews competed with Daryl Porter Jr. to be WVU’s second cornerback against Nicktroy Fortune. As Porter won the start of the season opener at Maryland and continued in his No.2 cornering role, Matthews is making the most of his extended action.
He’s had 11 tackles so far – three in each of the first two games and five last Saturday.
“You could see that coming up a bit,” Brown said. “He had a great spring. He was injured at fall camp and missed seven to ten days. It probably took the Long Island game to get it back into high gear. He made a few flash games in Maryland. but he played really well in some big moments on Saturday.